On Thursday it was Hyundai – and more specifically Ott Tänak – that ruled the roost on the Monte Carlo Rally. On Friday it was Toyota that bossed it, and Sébastien Ogier who was king.
Yet it’s Elfyn Evans who leads the way on Friday evening at the halfway stage of the rally, with seven stages down and seven still to come. The lead gap is a slender one though: just 7.4 seconds.
Ogier started Friday’s second leg 16.9s in arrears of Tänak’s lead in fifth place, but it only took him two stages to hit the front. Recovering from a brake pedal issue on Thursday, Ogier said “he needed to react” and he did so with aplomb, carving open an 11.3s advantage over Evans by midday service.
Then it all changed. A front-left puncture after service cost Ogier 34.7s to his team-mate, who suddenly found himself over 20s clear at the head of the pack having opened his stage-winning account for the new season.
Evans had been given a gift, but might he have failed to unwrap it? On the very next stage – the final test of the day – Ogier hit back with a vengeance, slicing 16s out of Evans’ advantage to close to those 7.4s behind ahead of Saturday.
Understandably, Evans wasn’t wholly satisfied with that. But he was at least sure he knew where the seconds were escaping.
“Seb has had a fantastic day,” Evans admitted. “It’s a shame for him obviously that he picked up the puncture. I think the story would look a little bit different had he not had that.
“From my side, I can see where perhaps the time is going. The split times all sort of coincide with where I’m struggling a bit more [which is] just basically when it goes more extreme, more slippery, I’m struggling for that last bit of feeling.
“I don’t get the confidence that I need to push more in that area so hopefully we can make some changes and be in a better position in those conditions tomorrow.”
On the massive bite Ogier gobbled out of his lead on SS7, Evans said: “I’m sure he’s taken a bit of risk to arrive at that point. I maybe didn’t take quite enough and we know as well that there’s a small advantage to run first on the road but to be fair to him it’s not 16s.
“It’s maybe one or two or three, who knows, but he’s driven very well today so he’s been very difficult to keep up with but we still have a job to do tomorrow so we have a big fight on our hands.”
Evans is right on both scores. Yes, Ogier was extra determined on that final stage of the day and yes, Evans does have a big fight on his hands to repel his team-mate’s advantage.
“Knowing Sébastien, I think he got a little bit angry and he has this ability to turn this anger into the positive energy and you can see that immediately on the last stage of Friday that he was working hard and he was pushing,” was how new Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala assessed Ogier’s response.
Latvala should know, he spent four years at Volkswagen as Ogier’s team-mate and lost out to him on Rally Jordan 2011 in what still stands as the closest finish in WRC history.
“He used that negative energy, turned it to positive and did an amazing time so overall I must say I’m very, very pleased with my drivers, how they’ve been doing,” Latvala added.
“It’s been a really good day.”
Ogier would probably agree with his new boss’s final statement, but the seven-time world champion is aware it could’ve been better too. As he put it: “If you take away the brake issue yesterday and the puncture, we could be in a comfortable lead but we are not so it means we need to keep pushing.”
This is Monte, everything is possible. I'm always prepared to take a bit more risk here to win this rallySébastien Ogier on his bid for Monte Carlo Rally victory
There can be no doubt that that’s exactly what Ogier’s going to go and do on Saturday and Sunday. Despite losing 35s with his stage-six puncture, Ogier will actually start Saturday one second closer to Evans than he started on Friday, highlighting the performance advantage he would appear to harbor.
Ogier wasn’t for mincing his words either, making it clear what his ambitions are this weekend.
“For sure, I came here to win this rally and I’m going to do everything to make that happen,” he said.
“I think we were pretty unlucky with the puncture, nothing we can do about that. They were very difficult conditions, very tricky, a lot of rain and also with the puncture we had to carry on one studded [tire from the boot] on the car.
“After a couple of kilometers it was starting to move more and more on the rear and a lot of oversteering, so I had a couple of nice sideways moments I have to say but I was really pushing because I was angry from this puncture definitely.
“And like I say with 23s this is Monte, everything is possible. I’m here to win this rally so I’m going to win it. I’m always prepared to take a bit more risk here to win this rally.”
Saturday is going to be a good one…